Review by Matt S.
I want to get the startling irony out of the way first: An Australian developer produced Casey Powell Lacrosse 16. You’d have to live in Australia to really understand why that is so ironic, but this sport is so spectacularly unpopular in this country half the population wouldn’t have a clue what it is if you showed them footage of it in action. You might say that “it’s like cricket in the US” except cricket is played on TV in the US and in my experience most Americans have at least a vague idea of what it looks like. I really do mean this; most Australians have never seen a lacrosse match and the closest it has come to being famous is when it showed up in that one episode of House (when House was still popular).
But me? I love lacrosse. A little like my fascination with European handball, really, I find myself much more interested in a sport almost no one has heard of than the staples of AFL and rugby that most Australians are fixated on. I’ve even played the game once, though that was more a case of a bunch of friends and I picking up lacrosse sticks and throwing the ball at one another. But if there was some kind of organised lacrosse competition to spring up in Australia I would be there for it in a heartbeat.
Anyhow, I digress. The point is that, yes, it’s ironic – hugely so – that Australia’s Big Ant produced Lacrosse 16. But here’s the thing: God have they done the sport justice. What I do know about Lacrosse from the YouTube videos I’ve watched is that at its best it is a wildly fast and free-flowing game, and requires a great deal of skill, control, and precision to be good at it. In this, Big Ant have absolutely nailed the flavour and feel of the sport.
A couple of negatives out of the way, because I don’t want to dwell on them as they don’t really affect the overall experience; as with Don Bradman Cricket, there aren’t real player names in Lacrosse 16 (at least, as far as I’m aware). Instead, you can edit your own names and create your own teams, and then upload these teams so that others can download them. As far as I can tell now, all the teams have been accurately recreated from the current American leagues, so you get the full licensed experience without Big Ant having to pay for the license. Clever.
On more practical matters there are some rough edges to the gameplay that I am more than happy to forgive, given that this is the first damned time a developer has tried to do Lacrosse. Transitions between plays are really clunky, and when a ball goes loose, actually getting a player to scoot over to it to pick it up is a bit of a mess. The AI has no such issues with the controls that I did, so despite playing for a solid couple of days (and getting to the point where I am competitive in the mid-tier of difficulty settings), I was still loosing the majority of scraps over loose balls. I also found that passing mechanics were a touch clunky at times, and while checks and steals were possible, more than a couple of times I’d win the ball only to toss it out of bounds immediately, not realising that I had done so. This is a game that could have done with a far closer zoomed-in camera, because the lacross ball is tiny and I would have given up some of the field of vision to have a more “on the field” camera (that’s the way I play soccer games anyway).
Finally, I was less than amused by the commentary, which became repetitive quickly and was generally quite poorly voiced. But, it must me said that the actual visual presentation was gorgeous. We’re not talking FIFA standard here, of course, but as with Big Ant’s other niche-sports-produced-on-a-budget (Don Bradman Cricket, Rugby League Live), the visual engine more than punches above its weight, and I regularly found myself pausing the action to take screenshots and watch replays, because it is very pleasing on the eyes.
With those negatives all out of the way, Lacrosse 16 nails every other facet that I love – and wish I could see more of here in Australia – of lacrosse. The speed with which the game happens is superb, and with a bit of practice the ability to set up complex passing routines that result in a precision shot behind the back at the goal has the most elegant, graceful motion that I think I’ve ever experienced in a sports game before. The technique required to be really good at this game is right up there too – it’s very easy to lose the ball to an interception if passes are drilled properly, and the net that you’re aiming for is very, very small. The field is big and open, allowing players to carefully set up plays that take advantage of wide spans of field, and it’s possible to play from behind the goal, too, which opens up still further strategic options.
In many ways the game feels like a running, grassy version of ice hockey, only faster and more strategically nuanced; there are more players on the field at once and the slingshot motion of the stick propels the ball faster than is possible in ice hockey. I can see why the sport hasn’t taken quite as well as a spectator sport as games like ice hockey – the goals look very small in the centre of the field, and where audiences get an up-close view of the action in ice hockey, there’s no such luck in lacrosse and you’ll be straining to see what’s going on from the stands. But, where the game lacks as a spectator sport, as a sport to play, it’s exciting, dynamic, high scoring and so, so fast, and Lacrosse 16 absolutely nails that experience.
In terms of gameplay options, there’s the standard career, one-off and season modes, and not a lot more. It’s nowhere near the depth of content that you’d get in a FIFA game, but with more than enough difficulty settings and different leagues to play through there’s still enough here to maintain interest.
I can’t help but go back and compare Lacrosse 16 to what we saw with the dismal Handball 16; a game that hurts a true fan of European handball to the core. Both are, effectively, first attempts at bringing their respective sports to the videogame medium, but where handball was an ugly, clunky, and barely playable mess of a game that failed to even capture the spiritual core of the sport, Lacrosse 16 is genuine. Can it be improved? Absolutely. There’s elements in here that could use refinement, and I pray that the game has been enough of a success to encourage another run at it next year, because I’m almost certain that those rough edges will be smoothed out. More important than those small faults, however, is that Lacrosse 16 captures the soul of the sport. In the moment-to-moment play this is a fast, energetic, entertaining sport and that is exactly what Big Ant have offered in its take on it.
I really was sceptical of how Big Ant would go with a sport that most of the team were surely not familiar with before they started to work on it. I should not have been. Big Ant is, effortlessly, the world’s premier independent developer of niche sports, and Lacrosse falls squarely in its beat. It’s ace and I love it. Now. Handball and Lacrosse actually share some similarities in how the action flows, so let’s all join me in petitioning Big Ant to wrest the license to make European handball games off the current developer so I can finally have quality videogame takes on my favourite three team sports – cricket, lacrosse and handball.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld